Sermon: Outside of Time and Space: Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey
May 17, 2020 for Jubilee Baptist Church via Zoom
Today’s Scripture Reading comes from the book of Acts. To help us orient ourselves to today’s story, I’m going to read it first in The Message translation and second in the New Revised Standard Version:
The first Reading:
Acts 17:22-31 (MSG)
22-23 So Paul took his stand in the open space at the Areopagus and laid it out for them. “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.
24-29 “The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him, as if he couldn’t take care of himself. He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it?
30-31 “God overlooks it as long as you don’t know any better—but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and he’s calling for a radical life-change. He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.”
The second reading:
Acts 17:22-31 (NRSV)
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor[i] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God[j] and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
The Word of God for the People of God
Now that you’ve heard the text in a few different ways, allow me to further set the scene for this story:
So what was The Areopagus? The areopagus where the Apostle Paul spoke was a place where court was held sometimes and also where philosophers got together to argue and debate one another. Really, it was just a big rock where people had important conversations. The philosophers and religious thinkers in Athens at the time seem particularly interested in Paul’s argument for what he calls “The Unknown God” based on the altar to the “unknown God” in Athens:
Altar to the unknown God: “There is an altar dedicated to the unknown God found in 1820 on the Palatine Hill of Rome. It contains an inscription in Latin that says:
Which could be translated into English as: “Either for a god or a sacred goddess, Caius Sextius Calvinus, son of Gaius, praetor by order of the Senate restored this.”
Paul’s argument on the Areopagus Hill?
Who is this Unknown God? Well, for starters, the unknown God can’t be contained and this unknown God is fully revealed through the person Jesus, who lived on the earth as “God with us.” “God with us.” You can’t put this God in a box or in a temple or a shrine. You can’t put people in a box either. Now, Paul’s goal here is to get people to agree to what he’s saying. The Athenians aren’t necessarily buying in because their belief in gods is a little different. But we can still learn from this.
If God cannot be contained within the four walls of a church, or a temple, why do we think that we, the offspring of God and like God could be contained either. Father Richard Rohr would remind us that God is in everything and that God is in us. What I’m saying is, God is not a church building. And this God with us, came to show love to those on the margins, those that society and the religious leaders at the time (and in our time) deemed unworthy of love.
We’ve been gathering together online since Palm Sunday and I know that’s been hard and different. There are other churches and pastors who have defied stay-at-home orders and have been willing to sacrifice the health of their parishioners instead of showing love and care by helping stop the spread of COVID-19.
Like most people I know, this year hasn’t turned out the way we thought it would. When I planned out my year in January 2020, I didn’t see myself living through a pandemic, losing my job, or being at home most of my time.
And yet, here I am trying to plan and dream again with two more weeks of class left in my spring quarter. Because what can we be certain of if it isn’t hope of a better world in the future? Our lives are currently dictated by CDC recommendations and stay-at-home orders, face masks, and social distancing/six feet markers in stores.
Meanwhile, there’s a national government and a conservative Christian movement saying that our religious freedoms and our economy are suffering because we’ve chosen to promote the wellbeing of human lives over these things. We’ve been told it isn’t safe to be around one another. Let me tell you a secret: It is not infringing on your rights to be willing to sacrifice your comfort for someone else’s physical safety. You are not losing any rights of personhood.
I know we aren’t supposed to compare ourselves to other churches, but I can’t help but think of these protests to reopen the state as selfish and reckless. And privileged. To ask folks to go back to work and risk their health and lives for your comfort is selfish. Sure, it’s more comfortable and “normal” to meet in a church building But…there’s something more beautiful in what Paul talks about.
Let me tell you something about the words safety and freedom:
Safety. I’ve spent most of my life just trying to be and feel safe. By doing that, I had to make myself small–shrinking into tight spaces that were not meant for me but I sacrificed myself for the sake of safety. I live with several panic disorders because I’ve not always been safe to be who I am.
Freedom. I sacrificed my freedom for safety. Not the kind of freedom that proud White Nationalist Americans talk about but the freedom to be myself without restraint. I’ve spent so much of my life restraining myself and locking my true self away in an attic like the crazy wife in Jane Eyre. I am not the crazy wife in Jane Eyre. And I am not crazy.
I’ve spent so much time trying to be safe. Just trying to survive. Which meant running from anything that looked even vaguely threatening. But I confused safety with complacency. I am finally safe. I do not have to run anymore. And I couldn’t stop running because living has started to look scary. I’ve confused it with being unsafe. Living is not unsafe. It is hard. But it is not unsafe.
WE, are the church–a gathering of people–but that gathering doesn’t have to happen in person. We are a community even when we are a part and no one is preventing us from worshipping God in new and creative ways. A church near where we live has a banner that says, “Socially distant, spiritually present.” It’s cheesy but it also has a point.
Glennon Doyle, author of the book Untamed says we try to put people into glasses like we’re water that can be contained, but really, we’re the sea. We are the sea; people and their many identities and categories can’t be summed up with binaries like male or female, gay or straight, etc. The same is true of our faith community and God. God cannot be contained or prevented from being with us in Spirit just like we are spiritually present with one another. This is to the unknown God we worship who cannot be contained. May we continue to be present together in whatever ways are possible and safe right now just as God is present with us. Amen.
Benediction: Litany for Becoming from enfleshed.com
To become is a life long process.
Nothing is constant,
not even the self.
We evolve in the midst of narratives meant only for some
and ways of being made narrow by fear and power.
We must, then, have the courage to listen to the truth of our own lives,
to the wisdom that comes from within –
responding without resistance or need to control,
but with welcome and curiosity.
This is what ensures our becoming is an unfolding
of our truest self.
This lifelong labor cannot be carried out alone. It requires help
from friends, and lovers, family, and creaturely companions
who bear witness to what makes us come alive.
And say to us, “Listen. Look. Feel. Pay attention to that.”
Many: This is loving and being loved.
There is no me without you.
We shape one another.
The Sacred that birthed us
weaves our lives together
so that we can only find ourselves through shared becoming.
For my journey and all its winding ways.
For all the saints who labored for what is,
all the kin whose lives made ours possible.
For all those yet to come for whom
living our truths today will mean breaking possibilities open for them tomorrow:
We pause. We give thanks. We acknowledge.
Many: This is loving and being loved